Gehrke: Utah doesn’t need to fear a popular vote for president, but ditching the Electoral College remains a long shot

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke

What if, instead of having a direct election, Utah’s candidates for governor had to win electoral votes allocated based on Utah’s population — say, one vote for every 30,000 people plus two each for the 29 counties?

Salt Lake County, and its more than 1 million people, would get 38 electoral votes. Daggett and the state’s 12 least populous counties would get three each. Together, those 13 rural counties would have more electoral votes than Salt Lake, despite having 900,000 fewer people.

In other words, each of those rural voters would have 10 times the influence as voters in Salt Lake County. As a result, candidates could ignore the urban areas and a small rural minority would likely rule the state.

It would be an absurd system going against every principle of fairness and the one-person-one-vote style of representative democracy that we now enjoy.

But we let it slide when it comes to choosing a president, thanks to reliance on the Electoral College, which apportions 538 electoral votes based on population and gives two each to every state and the District of Columbia.

What that means is that sparsely populated states such as Wyoming and North Dakota are vastly overrepresented, while states such as California and Texas are proportionately underrepresented.

How bad is it? Every electoral vote in Wyoming represents 195,000 people, while every elector in California represents 712,000 people, nearly four times as many.

In Utah, each elector represents roughly 527,000 people.

If you were setting out to design a system of elections from scratch, you would never choose this one. But it is in our Constitution, placed at a time before national news outlets, televised debates and Twitter.

Not long ago, there was a bipartisan feeling that it would be a good idea to get rid of the Electoral College. Unfortunatel,y in recent years, like everything in this country, the issue has shifted to a partisan debate. While a majority still supports changing the system, there is a wide partisan divide, with three-fourths of Democrats wanting the change compared to a third of Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, proposed a Constitutional Amendment this week to get rid of the Electoral College. Several Democratic senators also support the notion, as does Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Republicans, however, are resistant. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted recently that the “The desire to abolish the Electoral College is driven by the idea [that] Democrats want rural America to go away politically.”

Even though the Electoral College is the reason that George W. Bush and Donald Trump won the presidency (neither won the popular vote in their first terms), this isn’t an issue that should pit Republicans and against Democrats.

Yes, there are Republican states like Wyoming and North Dakota that get an outsized voice, but so do places like Vermont, Hawaii and the District of Columbia that are consistent Democratic strongholds.

And, thanks to the winner-takes-all format of the Electoral College, a vote cast by a Republican Trump voter in liberal New York was rendered just as meaningless as a Democratic Clinton voter in conservative Texas.

President Donald Trump — who, again, didn’t win the popular vote — has actually said several times that he would prefer a popular vote to the Electoral College.

Defenders of the Electoral College contend places like Utah would become fly-over states if the popular vote ruled. Here’s a hard fact: Utah already is a fly-over state and maybe for a reason you are not considering.

In 2016, Utah was completely ignored by both presidential candidates during the general election. We saw two visits from vice presidential candidate Mike Pence and one from Donald Trump Jr. who came to town for a fundraiser. Pence’s second visit was to shore up support and encourage Utah Republicans to “come home” to the Trump ticket rather than splintering and voting for third-party candidate Evan McMullin.

But our neighbor Nevada, which also has six electoral votes, hosted 10 campaign stops by Clinton and Trump alone and they visited New Hampshire, which has just four electoral votes, 13 times after each had won their party’s nomination — so we’re not even counting visits during the primary.

The reason Utah is a fly-over state, then, has nothing to do with geography or its relatively small population. It is a result of Utah not being competitive in my lifetime. The winner-take-all Electoral College actually makes it far less likely that Utah will see meaningful campaign attention from either party. Everybody knows the Republican candidate is getting Utah’s six votes.

The reality is that more than two thirds of the country is now fly-over country for the same reason, unless the candidates need to pop in for a fundraiser and use them as a sort of ATM machine.

Changing the Constitution as Schatz proposes is the cleanest solution, but in a divided nation is politically impossible. There is a partial fix without having an amendment.

The Constitution doesn’t specify how states designate their electors. One partial fix could be to allocate electors based on the proportion of the vote in the state, rather than winner-take-all.

Another solution has been put forward by the group National Popular Vote. They are trying to enlist enough states to make up 270 electors (the number needed to win the presidency) to commit to supporting the popular vote winner, rather than the winner of the state.

That means electors from a Republican state like Utah could end up being bound to vote for a Democrat, but electors from California could also be bound to support a Republican. The end result, however, ensures the candidate who gets the most votes is elected president.

Fifteen states are on board with the idea. For several years (with the exception of this year) there has been a proposal in the Utah Legislature to join that group.

Realistically, it won’t happen before 2020, which is fine. It shouldn’t be about any one party winning a specific election. But it could help fix a broken system, make Utah at least a little more relevant in presidential elections, and move us closer to a representative democracy — all of which are worth serious consideration by Utah lawmakers.